The Camino: A post-Leaving Cert holiday with a difference
You don't have to be a saint to walk Spain's Camino de Santiago, writes Joe Corcoran.
The afternoon dust is stubborn. It clings to my body despite waterfalls of sweat.
The rucksack I'm carrying is overfilled. Its straps gnaw at my shoulders and the thin pin prong of a European plug is poking into my back. The geology of my right foot is 90pc blister. The dead skin is melding with fibres from my cotton sock.
I am overwhelmed by a sense of pride and elation - it reverberates in my nerve endings. So is everyone else around me in this cathedral square. I know, not because they say so or because of their broad battered grins. It is just something in the air. Palpable. Organic. Unifying.
The square itself is an architectural wonder. It is lit in the way of well-made films. The colour of things has never been this essential to real life before. I haven't seen the tomb yet and, as it happens, I never will. To do so would necessitate my unpacking everything in my rucksack to prove I'm not a terrorist. I'm not a terrorist, but nor am I pious enough to prove I'm not for the sake of seeing some tomb I could google in a heartbeat.
Is this what spiritual profundity feels like? If so, the feeling won't be heightened by retreating indoors to gawk at a dead man. Which one was St James again? He's got a gate in Dublin and a cathedral in Northern Spain. How industrious.
This moment is the conclusion of El Camino De Santiago, the world's most popular pilgrim path. In July I was part of a Leaving Cert holiday group that set off to conquer the famous way. We spent seven days walking, seven hours every day, through what we didn't know at the time was the year's worst heatwave.
Before the end of the first 30km stretch, between us we resembled a set of traffic lights. Reddened and peeling for the most part, a less pathetically Irish pair were developing bright orange tans that belied their discomfort, while one boy with self-diagnosed heatstroke had a green tint to him that would turn up in the toilet later that night.
The remaining days were just as punishing, but they lacked the shock of the first few. Our bodies adjusted to walking over time. The scenery was varied and beautiful, even if we were too hot to fully appreciate it. An amalgam of countryside hill-tops surmounting the clouds, motorways tattered by bootprints on either side, dirt roads plunged into dark green forests and pebble paths crunched into fine white sand.
We'd arrive at the town we were sleeping in a few hours before it got dark each evening and there waiting would be a three-course dinner and a glass or two of Estrella Galicia.
Morning time meant cold communal showers still grimey from the last batch through. If those were occupied then deodorant was basically a bath in a can, right? We had often slept poorly because our mattresses were thinner than our forearms and we'd been woken a handful of times already by other pilgrims on insanely early starts.
Packing up in our groggy states took 20 minutes. After a breakfast of toast and coffee or maybe, if we were lucky, some Galician almond cake left over from the previous evening's dessert, we'd be on the road again by nine o'clock.
The walks themselves were far quieter than we'd expected. People popped up occasionally, wishing us a "Buen Camino" as they passed, but otherwise we were left with a lot of time to ourselves. None of us being religious, a fact that displeased a few landlords eager to sell us Catholic memorabilia, this thinking time was about as close as we came to the genuine pilgrim experience.
While it may have lacked a certain divine edge I shouldn't disregard it altogether. For someone sceptical of such notions I must admit to experiencing an almost cosmic level of vitality when my endorphins ran high enough. Feeling simultaneously unplugged from the world and more plugged in than ever, with nothing to worry about except putting one foot in front of the other and inhaling and exhaling fresh country air.
Unfortunately, more often than not these moments would be encroached upon by a café bar blaring pop music through maddeningly tinny speakers. Anyone who has walked El Camino will shudder to remember the café bars. Repeating every few kilometres and often run by crabby and impatient staff (bizarrely so, considering the area's dependence on tourism) these lunchtime hotspots proved to be to the Camino what the flies infesting them were to our grease-clogged, cheaply assembled food.
Their non-existent quality standards became a running joke in our group before long, and on the final day I think we celebrated seeing what we knew to be the last of them more than we celebrated the city itself. What they represent however is a much broader issue plaguing the pilgrimage: El Camino has become so popular that I fear it's starting to devour itself.
The pilgrim centre is surrounded and engulfed by nightclubs and fast food restaurants. Every 50 metres a different duo of stern-faced and heavily armored policemen, or what I hope are policemen, patrol like bloodhounds for rucksack terrorists. Beggars move officiously to and from prime begging spots on a carefully devised rota and, off shift, drink double shot cappuccinos on terraces.
That Santiago manages to survive these things and still prove such a pleasure to walk through is testament to its resplendence. However, if I were a more religious person and had put any great stock in the sanctity of St James's tomb, I imagine the theme park that it's in danger of turning into would be a disheartening revelation.
But then we weren't religious. We were just a bunch of lads on our Leaving Cert holiday. This means that no matter what I write about the trip it cannot possibly be fair and balanced. Walking El Camino was one of the greatest times I've had in my life, but it would take a sad person indeed not to enjoy a holiday with a group of their best friends.
The rough sleeps and cold showers, the physical effort involved in climbing every hill, the blisters and burns and the quixotically delusional sun-induced conversations - we came through it all as a single-minded group, determined but immensely satisfied.
The year 2016 has been declared a 'Holy Year of Mercy' by Pope Francis; and special events will be taking place. Santiago Cathedral officials have confirmed the Holy Door of the cathedral (Porta Santa) will be open for the Year of Mercy.
Twitter/Web: @spaininireland / spain.info (spain.info.ie)
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